The House, with Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose) emotionally recalling his own experiences in a camp for Japanese-American internees during World War II, today gave final congressional approval to a bill expressing a national apology and providing a $20,000 tax-free payment to every surviving internee.
The bill, whose total price tag is $1.25 billion, passed by a vote of 257 to 156 and now goes to President Reagan, who has already promised to sign it and “close a sad chapter in American history.”
The bill provides for the tax-free payments to an estimated 62,000 former internees who are still living.
It acknowledges “the fundamental injustice of the evacuation, relocation, and internment” of the 120,000 men, women and children, mostly West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry, in the months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, propelling the United States into the war.
‘A Monumental Injustice’
Mineta was 10 years old when he and his family were taken in 1942 from their home in San Jose to a prison camp established at the Santa Anita race track. Today he presided as Speaker pro tem as the House took final action on the compensation bill.
“This legislation touches all of us because it goes to the very core of our nation,” Mineta said in a speech closing debate. “I am deeply honored to serve in this body as it takes the great step of admitting and redressing a monumental injustice.”
But the bill was opposed by a number of members who, although they agreed the evacuation order was wrong, said cash payments were not appropriate.
Rep. Norman D. Shumway (R-Stockton) said: “There was a serious wrong done to many good American citizens. . . . But I do not see the remedy, the payment of $20,000, as the right answer.”
Nothing for Families
The Senate approved the measure by voice vote last week. The bill authorizes $1.25 billion for the payments, but the money will be provided over time with no more than $500 million to be appropriated in any one year.
The measure does not provide compensation to families of internees now dead; only those living when the bill becomes law will be eligible for the $20,000 payments.
The Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to the internment camps in the Rocky Mountains and the South under a 1942 executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Despite arguments that the order violated the constitutional rights of those sent to the camps without any charge or trial, the Supreme Court ruled in 1944 the action was within the President’s powers as commander in chief in wartime.
In 1980, a special commission was created to examine the issue. It recommended that compensation be paid, concluding that the evacuation order was based on war hysteria and racial prejudice. No similar action was taken against Americans of German or Italian ancestry, although the United States also was at war with those two countries.
The bill directs the Justice Department to identify and locate eligible individuals, who will be notified and then have 18 months to accept payment.
It also provides restitution payments of $12,000 to residents of the Aleutian Islands who were relocated by the government during the war. In addition, the bill provides $5-million compensation for the Aleuts for destruction of their villages and community property, plus $1.4 million for destroyed church property.
Another $15 million is provided to compensate the Aleuts for the loss of Attu Island, which was turned into a national wildlife refuge following the war.